By JLP | October 29, 2008
I think the article Regulation and the Mortgage Crisis is worth mentioning. According to the author, it aims “to provide perspective” on the “finger-pointing about responsibility for the absence of effective regulation that would have stopped or moderated the crisis.” It’s a really interesting read.
There are two sectors where more extensive regulation might have made a difference [in preventing the current crisis]. These are the investment banks and the Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both sectors were major players in the events leading up to the crisis.
In 2004 the SEC adopted a rule that pretty much allowed the investment banks to regulate themselves. While a number of other factors were involved in this decision, the commission’s belief at that time was that self-regulation would be more effective than SEC regulation. This policy was consistent with the free market ideology of the Republican administration.
In 2003, efforts to bring the GSEs under tighter regulatory control were defeated in Congress. This was primarily the work of Democrats, who feared that tighter regulation would crimp the ability of the GSEs to meet affordable housing goals.
The author refers to the decisions of Rebuplicans and Democrats which ultimately helped set the stage for this crisis “a tie” as far as political blame is concerned. He also hastens to add that “an only slightly less severe” crisis would have occurred anyway for reasons below.
Deregulation – defined as the removal of existing regulations – was not a factor in this crisis. The article explains that the only significant financial deregulation legislated in the past three decades applied to commercial banks. “Restrictions on where they could branch, and on their involvement in investment banking, were both removed. Most economists, including me, believe that these actions made the banks stronger than they would have been otherwise.”
The author then goes into an interesting historical explanation which explains that regulation itself is a weak defense to financial crises because regulations always tend to look backwards. For example, regulations on the Savings and Loans in the 1970’s were very strict – but the regulatory system was geared to preventing S&Ls from taking on too much default risk because, historically, that had always been the major problem. The exposure of S&Ls to interest rate risk was not controlled, which led to the huge financial crisis that many of us remember in the 1980’s.
S&Ls were encouraged to make long term fixed rate mortgages and loans with short term deposits. When interest rates spiked in the 80s the cost of deposits jumped, but revenue from loans stayed the same. Enter S&L crisis.
The policy changes that were introduced following the S&L crisis were largely designed to prevent another crisis of that type. Among other things, associations were authorized (and encouraged) to write adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) on which rates would adjust with the market. This would make S&Ls as well as banks less vulnerable to swings in market rates. Enter current crisis.
In short, regulations always have unintended (and usually unforseen) consequences which can sometimes cause problems just as bad ans the crisis they are designed to prevent. I’m sure Congress will shortly enact all sorts of regulations that will prevent a similar crisis to the one we’ve got now from ever happening again. I just hope whatever other consequences they inadvertently cause down the line aren’t too destructive…
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